BY BOB HERTZEL
The Dominion Post
Sometime today, John Oliver will walk into the future.
His name will be called and he’ll rise from his seat – all 6 feet 9 inches of him, which makes him probably this year’s tallest WVU graduate- and walk to the podium to receive his degree in Sport Management.
It comes with honors.
“If I’d known when I first got here what I know now, it would probably be with high honors,” he admits.
Graduation day is special no matter who you are.
For John Oliver, though, it may have more meaning than for anyone else because as he walks across the floor, he will be walking through what was the last four years of his life as a WVU basketball player.
“Graduation is in the Coliseum,” Oliver said as he sat in the seats others used to watch him play basketball for WVU. “I have more of a connection here than most of the people who are graduating. I’ve been in here every day. I’ve got blood, chipped teeth down on the floor there. That’s my blood, my sweat there. I’ve bounced off that floor more times than anybody, so it’s going to be hard. But I’ll be happy.”
John Oliver has made that walk before. It was the final game of a basketball season gone wrong. Senior Night. His parents were there. His sister was there. They walked down the carpet together.
“Walking down that carpet, I didn’t really realize that it’s over,” he said. “I got out there to center of the floor and Chris Moss was there and he said, “ This is it.”
But that wasn’t it.
Today is it.
John Oliver’s college days end today.
“It’s time in my life to move on,” he said. “Over the last four years I’ve matured a lot. I’ve learned a lot of things that will help me be successful in everything I do.
A close family
John Oliver thinks back over the past four years, about how West Virginia University and basketball changed his life.
But that isn’t what seems to be most important to him.
It is what WVU and basketball did for his family that Oliver believes is the most lasting thing he will take from his college days.
Oliver’s family is quite close.
His father, John Sr., started his own construction business in Manlius, N.Y., when he was 17.
“That man has worked 25
“The most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of this
has been seeing my family become closer and
how they reacted to this whole basketball thing”
hours a day, eight days a week. I mean, I didn’t see him when I was little.” John Jr. said.
“My mom, she was taking me to soccer practice, basketball practice, football practice baseball practice. My dad tried to make it when he could, but I understood. When I went to play ball, it was with my mom.”
It didn’t stop when he went away to college. He still laughs at the thought of coming home after his first year.
“ My mom was out there shagging balls for me. I’m shooting, she’s out there running around even though she has arthritis, throwing balls back to me, yelling, “C’mon, you can do it. Take a step back.” he said.
She was that involved.
And so, too, did John Sr. become involved.
“My mom told me a funny story about my dad,” he said. “He’s all grease and machines, heavy machinery like bulldozers, payloaders. He knows how to take ‘em apart, put ‘em back together. Give him a basketball and he couldn’t throw it in the ocean if he had to.
“But one day my mom comes home and my dad’s there reading a book. When she walked by, he kind of tried to hide it from her.”
“Basketball for Dummies.”
“He’d gone and bought it at a Barnes & Noble. He’d call me and ask things like, “What’s a full court press, how does that work? There’s different kinds of zones. What are they?”
The book gave him the answers.
“Over the years, my father, my mother, my sister, they’ve learned so much about basketball.”
Whenever they could, they’d come to the games, always at Syracuse, often in New York or Morgantown.
“I’d look up in the stands and see how happy they were. My dad wasn’t thinking about work. And they would get into it. My mom says sometimes she’s embarrassed to be around dad. He sounds like Mrs. Yeager now,” he said of teammate Josh Yeager’s mom. “You know Mrs. Yeager, she loves to yell. And on the road they get good seats behind the bench. I’d hear my sister yelling at me.
“The most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of this has been seeing my family become closer and how they reacted to this whole basketball thing.” Oliver said. “I was able to give them a little piece of my life.”
John Oliver remembers his official visit to WVU.
“ This was my last official visit. Virginia Tech came in for football. It was crazy. Everyone was so nice, I loved the school.” he said.
He had played basketball the previous year in Pittsfield, Maine, a cold town in the middle of nowhere he described as having one stop light and not much to do.
“We were 35-0. We averaged 120 points a game. We had Eric Barkley, who went to St. John’s, Kevin Braswell, who went to Georgetown. We had guys to the ACC, Big East,” Oliver recalled.
His first day in Towers he was unpacking, his family there helping him, when Marcus Goree, Tom Beynon and Brooks Berry came into the room.
“These guys 6-8 ,6-8 and 6-6 come in, I was a little intimidated.” he said.
Shortly thereafter, his roommate, Chris Moss, came into the room.
“Strange,” Oliver said, “You don’t know the guy, don’t know what to expect.”
But soon he, Moss and Lionel Armstead, the other senior on this year’s team, were fast friends.
If only basketball could have gone so well.
“It was tough coming in after the Sweet 16 team,” said Oliver. “There were six seniors gone.”
The freshmen just weren’t ready for the Big East at that time.
“When I lost my first game, I didn’t know how to react. It was like, ‘What do I do
now ?” Oliver said. “It had been a long time since I’d lost.”
There were too many other losses to follow. The first season produced a 10-19 record. The second season things got somewhat better, 14-14, although that was the year the Coliseum was closed for asbestos removal.
Still there was hope, especially after the team won 18 games in 2000-01.
“Increasingly we had gotten better. I thought we would win 22 or 23 this year,” Oliver said.
But it didn’t happen, his senior season turning into an experiment in terror that led to the premature retirement of Gale Catlett.
“I think Coach Catlett was a great coach. He knew what he was doing. He knew how to get through to players. He knew he could yell at me but with Chris Moss he had to pull him over to the side and whisper in his ear, maybe give him a little joke.” Oliver said.
But n o matter how Catlett tried to motivate this year’s team, it didn’t work. The younger players would not listen.
“There’s different ways to motivate people, to get them to take constructive criticism. This year they didn’t do that. They took it as just criticism. ‘Hey, I’m going to block you out. I got my friends in my ear, my parents, these other people telling me how good I am. I don’t want to hear it”’, Oliver said was the reaction.
And so John Oliver captained the worst team in WVU history.
Still he feels he owes Catlett a lot.
“Coming here was the best decision I ever made. I’m going to go to coach Catlett’s house either before or just after graduation and thank him for all he did for me.
Oliver takes too many good memories with him to let this past basketball season ruin his stay at WVU.
“It was nice making the NIT,” he said. And there was that 1998 upset of a Top 10 Syracuse team in the Coliseum to look back on..”
“I wasn’t even in the game when it ended and I was on TV, waving a towel. I got people calling my house, ‘Hey, I saw you.’ They were in the Top 10, the fans rushed the court.”
“My friends were star struck. They turned on the TV.’ Parents got to see it. It was the one time I could say, ‘Hey, I succeeded.”’
Best of his ability
The truth is, John Oliver succeeded at almost everything he did in college.
On the basketball court, he milked every ounce of ability he had even though he probably shouldn’t have been playing center.
“I try to set goals for myself every day. My teammates saw that. It’s the one thing I try to get across to them. I set a standard where I am going to get respect from you. Even when things were getting rough, still you’re going to respect me,” he said.
“ I set the record in the mile time here, the record in the bench press. Little things like that, I do. Every time we run a suicide, I win it. There hasn’t been a day in the four years I’ve been here when I haven’t won it.”
“Guys are faster than me, quicker. Forty yards, they’d beat me in a heartbeat. But going up and down the court, that’s something I can do. It shows I want to play. Diving on the floor, taking charges, that’s something I can do.”
And it wasn’t only games. John Oliver turned practices into battles, which didn’t always please Catlett.
“People misunderstand me sometimes. I go hard all the time. I’m physical. He always got mad at me for that,” Oliver said. “ The best was when he screamed. His voice would get real high pitched:
“’ OLIVER! OLIVER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? ARE YOU STUPID? ARE YOU AN IDIOT?’
“It was funny. I got in my share of trouble banging people around in practice. Tommy Beynon and I got into it. Calvin (Bowman) and I got into it. You just go at it. In the post, elbows fly.”
A love for kids
John Oliver graduates with a 3.3 average. He made the Dean’s List all four years.
He became active in the community.
“I got a love for kids. I did a lot with the kids in the community,” he said.
He worked the Miracle Network’s telethon for Children’s Hospital, worked as a charity waiter at the Texas Roadhouse, volunteered to work the Special Olympics.
“I get right in there and play with those kids. I’m just a big kid myself,” he said.
“I’ve seen football and basketball players in the past brush them off, say, ‘ I don’t have time, get away from me.’ These are the people that make it worthwhile coming here.”
Still hopes to play
The future beckons John Oliver. He’s hoping some day to go into the business end of sports.
But he doesn’t have basketball out of his blood yet. He’s been going to camps and doing well. In a Salt Lake City camp he was turned loose and average 17 points and 11 rebounds.
He’s hoping to find a place in Europe to play. If not, though, he’s ready to move on, confident that his four years at West Virginia University prepared him for whatever the future may hold.